By Anita Draycott
The rivalry between Australia’s two largest cities is alive and well and generally provokes great gnashing of teeth in Melbourne and mused indifference in Sydney. The former’s setting on the Yarra River, though lovely, can’t compete with Sydney’s iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge. However, when it comes to golf, Melbourne is the undisputed capital of golf in the Land of Oz. According to Terence Sieg and the editors of Golf Travel’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Golf Destinations, “Melbourne has the most illustrious and unique collection of golf courses of any city in the world, with an amazing cluster of eight vintage layouts in its suburban Sandbelt dating back to the 1920s, many of which were designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie, the World War 1 camouflage-expert-turned-golf-course-architect, the creator of Augusta and Cypress Point, and arguably the most influential course architect of the twentieth century.”
Tom Doak, whose modern-day Renaissance Golf Design has given the world such acclaimed courses as Pacific Dunes in Oregon and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, concedes that it’s a long way to go for some golf, “but the trip is hardly as taxing as the six weeks’ ocean voyage that Dr. Alister MacKenzie had to endure to make his landmark consulting visit to Royal Melbourne Golf Club in 1926. Because he went, so do you have to if you are really intent on seeing all of the best courses in the world sometime in your life.”
Bloody intent I was. Early next morning, thanks to an itinerary arranged by Gary Lisbon and his company GOLFSelect, I found myself teeing off on Royal Melbourne’s West Course, known by locals as “headquarters” and ranked number one in Australia, number five in the world (www.royalmelbourne.com.au). Wide and long, the 392-metre par-four first hole, like many of MacKenzie’s fairways, dares you to let one rip. (Distance on Australian courses is in metres so you’ll want to add about ten percent.) Perhaps most memorable at the Royal Melbourne are MacKenzie’s brilliant par-threes. The all-carry 161-metre fifth, for example, features awesome bunkering and a slippery raised green set against a scrub-covered dune.
In 1920 MacKenzie wrote a book, Golf Architecture, in which he outlined the thirteen essential features of an ideal golf course. MacKenzie was a proponent of strategic design, necessitating that each player must use his/her brains to select the best of several alternative routes depending upon one’s skill and audacity—from the bold to the timid. He was a fan of doglegs and incorporated eight on the West Course. Through these challenges the player is rewarded for the successful negotiation of difficulties and for good placing of shots. MacKenzie intended his courses to be enjoyable.
“There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls,” he said. (Now there’s a concept I like.) He also emphasized that the course should have beautiful surroundings and that even hazards should have a natural appearance. Indeed, the renowned MacKenzie bunkers might have been created by Mother Nature herself. I know because I spent so much bloody time in them.
Royal Melbourne is home to native orchids, kangaroo and wallaby grasses and varieties of eucalyptus, acacia and tea trees. It’s also a haven for feisty magpies, Rainbow Lorikeets, herons and ducks. Alas, no kangaroo sightings, but perhaps that’s because they are nocturnal and I tended to play early in the morning. You might describe these Sandbelt courses as Scottish links with an Aussie accent.
MacKenzie visited Melbourne just once in 1926 on the recommendation of the R&A. His fee was 1,000£ Sterling but the clever Scot offered to pay a fifty percent commission for any other consulting working the club could find for him during his stay. When the good Doctor left Australia six weeks later, he had worked on more than twenty courses, so Royal Melbourne not only got a masterpiece but also made a tidy profit on his visit.
How much credit MacKenzie actually deserves for all these courses is a matter of controversy. MacKenzie and the two helpers he was given got along famously, so by the time the Doctor left, his partners were well versed on his design philosophy and extremely capable of continuing his legacy. Within minutes of each other in Melbourne’s Cheltenham Beach district are several more top-rated Sandbelt courses (Royal Melbourne East, Kingston Heath, Victoria, Metropolitan, Commonwealth, Woodlands, Peninsula, Huntingdale and Yara Yara.) What they share in common is a fertile sandy base that allows instant drainage and ideal playing surfaces year-round.
Most concur that the number two course in Oz is Kingston Heath (www.kingstonheath.com.au). The genius of this Dan Soutar design with its Alister MacKenzie bunkering lies in its intricate routing over a mere 125 acres. On the par-three fifteenth it’s quite common for members to fortify themselves with a wee dram before attempting the 142-metre uphill green guarded by fierce bunkers and usually a stiff wind.
The Sandbelt course I would most want to play again and again is The Victoria Golf Club (www.victoriagolf.com.au). The graceful entrance lined with stately cypress trees leads to a clubhouse oozing with Old-World charm. P.G. Wodehouse and his characters would feel right at home in the paneled and beamed sitting rooms with deep leather armchairs scattered around a roaring hearth. Longtime members Peter Thomson, the Melbourne-born golfer who won the British Open five times, and Doug Bachli, the only Aussie ever to win the British Amateur, donated a number of their clubs, trophies and memorabilia to Victoria. The place resonates with history both inside and out on its undulating fairways bordered with gum and tea trees.
Arnold Palmer shimmied up one of those gum trees on the ninth hole to plot his approach to the green in the 1981Australian Open. Victoria has hosted three Australian Opens and attracted the likes of Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman.
Peter Stackpole, Victoria’s genial general manager arranged for me to play with a couple of avid members. Imagine my surprise when on the first green they had the audacity to roll their trolleys over the impeccable putting surface. I remarked that in Canada one would be ousted for such a travesty. “No worries mate,” they replied assuring me that the drainage is so good here that the rubber tires inflict no damage. By the way, on most of the Sandbelt courses, you shoulder your own bag or pull a trolley unless you have a medical certificate for an electric cart.
The beauty of a day on the links at Victoria is that you don’t have to leave. The club has fifteen bedrooms and packages that include a round of golf, breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you’re staying in one of the upstairs rooms, a staff member walks down the corridor ringing a gong to summon you to supper. Note: Men are required to wear and jacket and tie, but the atmosphere is far from stuffy.
World’s Most Liveable City
Golf may be the raison d’etre but you must allow sufficient time to succumb to Melbourne’s many other charms. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Survey recently named it to be “one of the world’s most liveable cities.” The sports-mad Melbournians love their fun and games. This is home to Australian Rules Footy. Try to see a local match; just don’t expect to understand the unique rules. Played on an oval field, a maximum of eighteen players per team attempt to score by kicking, punching (volleyball style) and bouncing the ball. The athletes wear skimpy shorts and not much padding and the fans encourage the “contact” nature of the game, originally devised to keep cricketers fit over the winter.
Melbourne also gives Sydney a run for its money when it comes to wining, dining and shopping. Victorian arcades house avant-garde designer boutiques, and a maze of narrow alleys play home to a vibrant café/bar society. In “Strine,” (Aussie jargon or slang) “taking an amber rinse” means downing a few beers—the ideal way to celebrate a day on the Sandbelt links.
Gary Lisbon (who photographed the golf courses for this story) and his team at GOLFSelect arrange customized golf tours throughout Australia and beyond. Their services can include access to tee times on the Sandbelt’s mainly private courses, luxury accommodations, car hire or chauffeured limousine transportation, caddies and sightseeing (www.golfselect.com.au).